Friday, June 12, 2009

Crossing the moat

It's raining for the fifth morning in a row. Reading weather. Dreaming weather. Last night, mussels and tête de cochon with The Roller. And a fine spätburgunder. We stood outside in the light rain smoking. Talking about bureaucracies.

"There's a difference between non-profits and real businesses. Businesses may be ruthless, but they produce results -- good or bad. But organizations that simply don't accomplish anything at all because no one can make a decision are deadly. It kills the spirit. These guys stifle innovation and make themselves irrelevant except as black holes of inertia. Children are starving while someone fills out a form."

"Yeah, but look at businesses these days. Publishers, newspapers, TV, all the old media. Or the car companies. They started out as scrappy companies run by entrepreneurs. Guys who could make decisions. The first generation checks out and the vision gets blurry. Finally, the bureaucrats come in to run things. The suits. Guess what? The organization bloats up and its goal becomes preservation of the status quo. You know how these guys react to new technology or a new idea -- they throw a tantrum and try to quash it. Or they pay it lip service and assign a committee to study it. Set up another bureaucracy. Then they piddle. Right through their rubber shorts."

"They're so busy building moats around their little castles they don't get that there's nothing inside their castles any more except their bureaucracies! All the creative stuff has moved outside the castle. It's similar with non-profits. Unless somebody with vision and determination comes into the organization and tears it apart. Then it runs okay for a while. Then it really does get food to refugees. Or build homes for earthquake victims."

The drizzle kept coming down. Just then a young woman walked out of the mist and came over to us. Short, plain, with short hair and a light jacket, in her early twenties. Clean, sober, articulate. She said, "I don't usually do this. I mean, come up to some strangers and ask for something. But. I'm trying to get home."

The Roller and I looked around. Nobody else nearby.

"I live in Huntington now but I'm not from around here. I go to SVA. I'm a student there. But I need eighteen dollars for the railroad ticket back to Huntington. Now. I'm not asking for all eighteen dollars. That would be too much. But I'm wondering if you could. Well. You know how expensive it is here in NY."

We nodded. "And you came here...?"

"To study art. I work in mixed media. And I do a lot with charcoal. Drawings. Big drawings. I make collages too. It's a good school. I like SVA. But I really do need to get back home."

"How come you live in Huntington, way out on the Island. You know somebody there?"

She looked down at her sneakers and mumbled something. We couldn't catch it. But it didn't matter. The Roller was already reaching into his pocket. The whole thing seemed so reasonable. A young woman, walking east, away from Penn Station, on a drizzly night, an art student too, one
who made collages, needed some money to get back home to Huntington. He gave her twenty bucks. Of course, she thanked us profusely. Then she said, "I'll pay you back. Do you own this place?" She jutted her chin toward the restaurant behind us. "I can come by and pay you back. Looks like a really nice place." Oh my, was she good. By then, all three of us were grinning. It was a strange little pool of intimacy that we were standing in, there, in the diffused glow of the street-lamps, conducting a perfectly normal transaction. We shared our good humor for another moment, then she said, "Well, goodnight then. Thanks so much." And she took off.

The Roller turned to me and sighed. Then he said, "I love coming up to the City. Things like that. Much as I love the farm, you can't beat the City." Listening to that girl relaxed us, it had taken a weight off our shoulders. Who cares about bureaucracies anyway? Inside the bartender was about to tell us that Lagavulin tasted like Laphroaig. We weren't going to buy that either.

No comments:

Post a Comment